A Look At Life: Milk

14th November 2014

Milking the Countryside

Clare Finney

Whatever creed, faith, race or culture you identify with, you’ll know the closing line of Blake’s Jerusalem: ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. It’s embedded in our consciousness, yet how many of us have ever stopped to think that this might cease to be true in future? For Sussex farmer Steve Hook, famed for challenging the creeping industrialisation of our dairies, it is a prospect he is forced to dwell upon every single day.

Not by his own land, naturally. Steve’s pastures are the epitome of green and pleasant: lush, bucolic havens of picture-book cows chewing meditatively. With over 200 acres to play in, and wild grasses to eat – a diet not only purer than that of their industrially farmed peers, but much more varied – the milk is both tastier and richer in nutrients.

But the landscape is under threat from permanently housed, intensively fed mega-herds of cows carefully monitored to maximise milk yield. In a day, one ‘unit’ will produce as much as Buttercup could in a week. In America it’s already happening: dozens, if not hundreds, of such Wellsian farms exist there, but it’s been held back in the UK thanks to local campaigners and environmental groups highlighting concerns over animal welfare, disease control, transport issues and pollution… until recently, when Fraser Jones, a farmer on the Welsh border, appealed to the High Court for a large indoor herd and dairy – and six years and huge legal fees later, won.

It is a precedent-setting case. It means the way is paved for other farmers to build so-called super dairies. They’ll be driven, if not by their own wishes, then by the demands of a market which has sent their revenue plummeting well below cost. The average dairy farmer needs 31.5p a litre to break even; the most generous supermarket contracts pay 32p and the meanest 26p, leaving a crippling £90,000 deficit annually.

Plainly this isn’t sustainable. Farmers need to live and the cost of production, from feed to fuel, is rising. No wonder a dairy farm closes down each day. Against this backdrop, it’s little wonder the thought of 1,000 cows producing 11,000 litres a milk each a year on less land holds such overwhelming appeal.

“These high production herds will be fed the same food day in day out – highly nutritious, of course, but if you had salmon and caviar every day you’d get bored,” says Steve. That argument might not sway those who, like me, eat beans on toast every day themselves – but the environmental impacts should: nitrogen contamination, as manure normally spread on fields piles up so high you can smell it in nearby villages; strains on the water supply as the traditionally 125-strong herd triples in size; England’s fields paved over by airport-style hangar sheds, storage buildings, large slurry stores and a high water-storage tower – and that’s just for 1,000 cows.

The biggest mega dairy in the States houses 32,000 cows. There’s not the space for it here, but it’s where we could be heading. Unlike America, though, we’ve not really got room to spare. Eighty per cent of our land is dedicated to farming. If it’s not National Park and it’s not been seized by developers, it’s probably agricultural. “England is a beautiful country, and she’s been kept that way because of centuries of farming”, says Steve, whose own farm is living proof of this. So how does he do it, and how can we support him and others like him in their efforts?

“I firmly believe that these days the only person who makes any margin in the food chain is the final seller,” Steve says – so he embarked upon selling raw milk: unpasteurised, unhomogenised, and as fresh as you’ll find it, short of owning a cow and milking it yourself.

By selling straight to the consumer he cut out the middleman: supermarkets and big processing companies like Müller Wiseman and First Milk. He became the price-maker, and made the farm viable again. Alas, at £2 for two pints there aren’t many of us who can justify it for our cornflakes – but what we can do is take Steve’s principles and apply them to our own everyday approaches to milk.

First: Milk does not cost a pound for four pints, whatever supermarkets say. If it’s that price the farmer is losing money at a rate of knots, and is liable to go under, or follow Fraser Jones’s footsteps toward a mega dairy – the end of another green and pleasant farm. If you’re buying it, you’re condoning it. End of.

Second: buy unhomogenised if you can; it’s one less processing stage so more of your money goes back to the farmer. It’s better for you (the fat is more digestible), is more flavourful, and has a reassuringly natural ‘top’. Duchy Originals (Waitrose) and Planet Organic do it, as do Ivy House Farm.

Third: buy organic. It’s not a cast iron guarantee of welfare but it’s better than nothing, particularly if it’s Waitrose, M&S or Yeo Valley, all of which have stated commitments to British family farms. It will cost perhaps 10p more, at most: a small price to pay if you like your food nutritious, your animals humanely treated and your countryside green and pleasant, as opposed to blighted with dark satanic cow sheds.

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